The San Francisco Giants needed a win on Tuesday night. A win would clinch a head-to-head season series win against the Cincinnati Reds, which could determine a tiebreaker for the final wild-card slot. A win was going to allow them to keep pace with the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs, both of whom won their respective games. A win would move them back into postseason position and the third wild card, gaining a game on the Arizona Diamondbacks, Miami Marlins and Reds. There’s no such thing as a must-win game on Aug. 29, but there’s definitely a “our legal team is advising you in the strongest possible terms that you should consider winning this game”-game.
The Giants won that game 6-1. They’re back in postseason position, and they have unmistakeable momentum. The last 48 hours at Oracle Park have featured some of the most exciting baseball in years, with a variety of heroes — young and old — playing out of their skulls at the exact time the team needed a boost. It was a great night for San Francisco Baseball Associates LLC by any objective measure.
And yet …
Alex Cobb allowed a hit with two outs in the top of the ninth inning, and that’s all you can think about. Somehow, that one hit has the potential to trick you into thinking that everything in the first two paragraphs is a little less urgent. Don’t fall for it. The Giants needed a win, and they got a thrilling, dominant win. It’s easy to overthink it.
And yet …
Cobb will join a short list of pitchers who lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning: it was the 70th time it’s happened in baseball, according to this unofficial count. The list includes Hall of Famers (Roy Halladay, Mike Mussina) and Giants (Scott Garrelts, Yusmeiro Petit, Matt Moore). Spencer Steer — whose double into the right-center gap spoiled the no-hitter — will join Paul O’Neill, Eric Chávez and Corey Seager in the ultra-exclusive club of players whose mere mention makes you twitch.
“In the moment, I was just focused on the delivery and the game plan and executing pitches, and then it started to become real,” Cobb told reporters after the game of the moment the no-hitter ended. “I wasn’t mad, sad, just alright, let’s finish it off. I’d at least like the (complete game) out of it.”
Cobb did get the complete game, even if Steer’s double scored the Reds’ only run and spoiled the shutout in addition to the no-hitter. It was the second complete game for Cobb this season, but it didn’t come as easily as the box score suggests. While he was in command all night, deftly moving his splitter in and out of the strike zone at will, he needed 131 pitches to finish the game. That wasn’t just the highest pitch count of his career; it was the highest pitch count from any starter in baseball since 2019. It was the highest pitch count from a Giants starter since Matt Moore, who also lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning.
“How many pitches is too many?” is almost a philosophical question, like the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. In the KNBR post-game wrap, Mike Krukow was fired up that Cobb got the chance to finish the no-hitter. It’s not a given that all (or even most) of the managers around baseball would have sent their starter out to throw the most pitches of his career. Cobb barely threw out of the stretch, and his velocity and arm slot never wavered, so Giants manager Gabe Kapler took the risk.
“At some point, you’re just like, ‘What are you going to do?’, right?” Kapler said after the game. “He’s pitching his a— off. He’s the best guy to get the next hitter out. And he still has all of his stuff … Sometimes a guy can throw 90, 95 pitches and it looks like that’s way more taxing than what we saw with Alex. It doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be a little extra recovery needed.”
At the end of the interview, Kapler said “I bet on that being — because it was so efficient — something that boosts him, rather than anything detrimental.”
A combined no-hitter is like an In-N-Out burger that’s been sitting out for an hour. It’s still an In-N-Out burger, and it’s still pretty good … but you know it’s not as good as it could have been. You can’t put a combined no-hitter in the microwave for a few seconds, either. So put me down as someone who was absolutely in favor of letting Cobb go for it. We’ll see if this looks inconsequential or reckless in retrospect.
If you’re worried about the physical effects of a game like this on a 35-year-old with a Tommy John history, though, note that the most dangerous play of the night came in the field. Almost every no-hitter and perfect game has that play. The Grégor Blanco play. With two outs in the eighth inning, center fielder Austin Slater provided it, and it seemed like the last box to check for those official it’s-gonna-happen vibes.
This shot. pic.twitter.com/Fsqv8nagZ8
— SFGiants (@SFGiants) August 30, 2023
However, once an outfielder starts to turn his wrist like this …
… it starts to get a lot dicier than an extra 30 pitches from a veteran pitcher. But Slater corrected in time and made the catch of the night, if not the season. It would have been an all-time catch with one more out, up there with the great no-no-saving catches in baseball history, closer to the DeWayne Wise end of the spectrum than most. (For a treat, click through that link and see who hit the ball in that Wise video.)
“I was just thinking that I wasn’t going to let this drop,” Slater said after the game. “Honestly, off the bat, I didn’t think that I had a chance. But I was like, ‘Well, I’m going, so I might as well keep going after it,’ and luckily was able to get there and make the play.”
Slater’s catch gets 4.5 Blancos out of 5. Everything had to be perfect to catch a dying quail that had an expected batting average of .480, even the replay review in New York.
Right fielder Luis Matos gets a 1.5 Pences out of 5 when it comes to how close he came to catching Steer’s double in the ninth. He took a fine route and made a strong effort, but there was nothing he could have done, other than getting the same painful limb-lengthening procedure that Ethan Hawke underwent in “Gattaca”
Spencer Steer was the spoiler in San Francisco with this two-out RBI double in the 9th.
Alex Cobb would get the final out of the game and get a standing ovation from the Oracle Park faithful.
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) August 30, 2023
Hunter Pence’s attempt in Petit’s near no-no was more of a Charlie-Brown-on-the-sidewalk kind of non-catch, with baseball history riding on what might have happened with a step in and to the left before the pitch, or a few extra inches on Chávez’s sinking liner, or just a little less sea air, or … you get the idea. With Cobb’s would-be no-hitter, he left a splitter just a little up, and Steer put a great swing on it. Matos never had a chance. Tip your cap, and so forth.
Still, there are more important things than the what-ifs. The Giants won. Patrick Bailey hit a two-out, two-run home run, but his biggest contribution might have been behind the plate, calling a one-hitter and stealing strikes the entire time. Matos knocked a two-out RBI double, and he’s hitting over .300 since coming back from Triple-A Sacramento. Mitch Haniger didn’t do much in his return from the IL, but the important part is that he returned from the IL.
The Giants have momentum. There’s a famous Earl Weaver quote that goes, “Momentum? Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher,” and don’t you forget it. But for the first time in a long time, the Giants entered a series with three announced starters, and the first two absolutely dominated in a way that people will remember for years and years. The most accomplished and reliable starter in the rotation — Logan Webb — is the next one up. In the Giants’ case, momentum has been because of the next day’s starting pitcher, and they’re counting on it to continue.
It was a great win, as fantastic as you’ll see. It might only be tied for the best win over the last two days, though, which gives you a sense for how much fun the Giants are having right now. They snapped out of a weeks-long funk at just the right time, and they’re starting to resemble the team that went 18-8 in June. Don’t look at the what-ifs. Just think of the win, dang it, the win!
And yet …
— Eno Sarris contributed to this report.
(Photo of Cobb and Bailey embracing after the complete game: Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)